The Daily Telegraph - Saturday
The humble pin-up of the potting shed
Boudicca Fox-Leonard discovers the secrets of Alan Titchmarsh’s sex appeal: kindness and being good with his hands
Alan Titchmarsh is talking about the time cardboard cutouts of him were frequently stolen from B&Q. It’s unclear if it was by the TV presenter’s legendary female fan base or, as he suggests, “for people to put them in their shed windows to frighten the burglars”.
In wonderfully obverse Wildean fashion, he also happens to have one in his coal shed at his Hampshire home. Every time he goes to collect some bird food he says: “I see me erupting from behind the coal bunker. And of course he’s younger than I am by some years. And his hair is darker. I really ought to get rid of it.”
It’s hard to imagine the nation’s favourite affable Yorkshireman in the same vein, or rather vain, as Dorian Gray, but I should imagine a career in television would do that to you. Titchmarsh agrees: “I think television does make you vain. But I’ve a great streak of realism.”
His beauty regimen has never extended to hair dye (“Although The Telegraph used to insist I did!”), rather fresh air, walking and gardening. “I used to go to the gym but it was so boring.”
At 71 he’s not so much a workaholic as a “stimulation-aholic”, who fears the boredom of retirement. During lockdown he presented Grow Your Own at Home with Alan Titchmarsh and Love Your Garden, as well as his Classic FM show, and his 12th novel is under way. In contrast to TV, the great thing about writing is “they can’t see how crumby you look”. He’s planning to still be stringing out sentences long after viewers finally say: “Get him off!”
It’s no faux-modesty, insists Titchmarsh; after all, he’s been on radio since 1977 and on telly since 1979.
He still loves doing it all. “As long as people don’t find me too offensive, I’ll carry on.”
The most common thing fans tell him is that they feel like they know him. Given that he doesn’t know how to be anything other than himself, he takes it as a great compliment that they then feel they want to be around him.
His enduring popularity speaks to our need in uncertain times for a reassuringly familiar presence. When the first lockdown began, ITV came calling, asking if he’d teach his wife of 46 years, Alison, to use a camera so they could continue making programmes. The result was six programmes of Grow Your Own at Home.
“My wife turned out to be very good. She’d never even taken a snap on her iPhone before!”
It was the first time they’d filmed in their current home. Their previous, Barleywood, was where Gardeners’ World was made, and his two daughters grew up not being able to go outside in their bikinis on a sunny day. When they moved home, they decided their new garden would be just for them.
If Mrs Titchmarsh stays out of the limelight, it’s not so she doesn’t upset the fans, but because she prefers it that way. “It’s deliberate,” says Titchmarsh, “but not in any way sinister. She’s married to me, and I have a profile, but my family aren’t props. We have a private life, as opposed to a secret life.”
I wonder what she thinks about his female fans, who he says are all very nice and of varying ages. “They’re not all old!” Take the young mum in her 40s who queued at BBC Gardeners’ World Live to have her book signed, so overcome at meeting Alan that her friend had to say her name. She promptly burst into tears as she walked away with her signed book.
Alison is rather bemused, he says. While he’s grateful to press like myself “for keeping the fiction going” of his pin-up status.
“I still can’t believe it,” he says.
After all, they might both be grey, but he knows he’s no George Clooney. The root of the attraction, he muses, must be to do with working with his hands. “If you analyse it, I think dexterity is quiet, I use the word sexy very loosely, but dexterity is an attractive asset. Like watching chefs.” So women like men
who are good with their hands? “Not in an overtly macho way, but in a safe way. Reliable. That sounds terrible. Wasn’t it Oscar Wilde who said, ‘Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative’?
“And the other one I like is that ‘only the mediocre are always at their best’. I remind myself of both of these from time to time,” he gently frowns.
But he’s always been able to change a plug or put a shelf up: “It’s who I am.”
I must admit I, too, feel quite thoroughly charmed. Chatting on Zoom is rather like watching him on telly, and watching him on telly is indeed rather like knowing him. He is genuinely kind. Something I realise 15 minutes into our allotted interview time, when by my own fault I arrive late, full of cringing apologies. Titchmarsh couldn’t be more amiable about it, turning from typing at his computer with a smile, so we can start our chat. It’s usually my job to make people feel at ease. Titchmarsh though, is the master.
The day before he filmed from 9am to 7pm on his new half-hour countryside show, Spring into Summer; three episodes back to back, each one featuring a well-known guest. Yesterday was Alison Steadman, Anton Du Beke and Ainsley Harriott, as well as birds of prey, dogs that rescue people, and newborn lambs and kids. It was a busy day but it was, using his trademark adjective, “lovely”.
As someone who joined his local naturalist society aged eight and left school at the age of 15 to become a gardener, he’s delighted to see so many people get in touch with the earth in its broadest sense during the pandemic, with record demand for flower and vegetable seeds.
Issues like climate change can seem too vast that, as individuals, we often feel powerless to do anything. But, says Titchmarsh, “that little bit out there is where you can make a real difference, whether it’s a single plant pot
‘There’s soul food involved in interacting with your little piece of earth’
with flowers for bees, an allotment or a wild flower meadow. The size doesn’t matter. There’s soul food involved in interacting with your little piece of earth.”
Nature hasn’t been the only source of succour; sales of romantic fiction rose in 2020. Titchmarsh’s publishers have been prodding him to deliver his 12th novel. “They don’t say hurry up, they’re too polite. But the deadline is next week. And it won’t be ready,” he stage whispers.
He writes what he himself would like to read. However, after a year of not going anywhere much apart from his own garden and his writing barn, the words haven’t flowed.
“My mind wasn’t settled in everyday life because it’s been so different. I think I have struggled more. And I’m still struggling with this one.”
But then, he’s always convinced that whatever he’s working on is the worst thing he’s ever written. The other day he asked Alison to read it, to reassure him that it wasn’t “deathly dull and really slow”. Her verdict: “I know what you mean about it being slower but it’s still interesting.” Now he’s trying to jack it up a bit.
I do hope he doesn’t make his protagonist too racy. After all, Titchmarsh is proof enough that what we all desire, at heart, is someone steady. Someone who can repot a fuchsia and change a light bulb.
h Don’t reply immediately It’s easy to say “yes” to something on impulse and later regret it. Instead, pause before you respond. “Give yourself a chance to notice how you feel,” says Jennie Miller, psychotherapist and co-author of Boundaries. If your heart sinks at the thought of going, that might be a sign to say no.
Keep it short
“If we end up doing a great long preamble of ‘Well, I could go but actually I wasn’t really keen, etc’ we could go right the way round and end up saying ‘Oh go on then, I’ll come’,”
Miller explains. Instead, decide beforehand whether you’re saying yes or no to the invite – and then don’t waver on that, regardless of how your friend reacts.
h Don’t give excuses “We don’t owe anyone excuses – we don’t have to say, ‘Look, I have terrible anxiety and I just don’t feel comfortable going,’” Dr Jacobson says. “We don’t have to say that – you can if you want, but ultimately it’s still just going to be a no.”
h Accept your friend might be upset
“We can’t please all of the people all of the time, and we mustn’t try to,” Miller says. Your friend might be visibly disappointed or angry but, Miller says, “it doesn’t mean you then need to change your mind”.
h Acknowledge your friend’s feelings
“It’s being assertive but with empathy,” Miller says. If you can tell your friend is upset, acknowledge their feelings (“I can see you’re upset about that”), so they feel heard.
“If you couch things in a kind way – an empathetic way – then it often is better received,” Dr Jacobson says. “As an example, if someone has invited you to a garden party and you don’t want to go, you can say, ‘For various reasons, I’m not able to come, but I know this party means a lot to you – especially after being in lockdown for so long, and you planned it to a great extent – and I hope you have a super time. I’d love to see a photo.’ That’s so different to ‘No, I don’t want to.’ ”
Pick up the phone
“Text so easily gets misread, it’s such a minefield,” Miller says. “So if you can pick the phone up and actually speak to the person, that would be better.” She also advocates video calling, as then you can read each other’s expressions.